Richard Strauss’ final opera presents a huge challenge for students but Guildhall School, under the baton of Clive Timms, has pulled it off with aplomb. Between the ravishing sextet that opens it and the gorgeous Mondscheinmusik with which it ends, the opera is a flow of wonderful melody. Form reflecting content, the words also fascinate and the text is a feast that keeps your eyes glued to the surtitles.
When Hugo von Hofmannsthal died in 1929, one of the most successful creative partnerships of the early 20th Century came to an end. The often tense relationship between the playwright and the great composer had produced some of the finest operas of all time. In Ariadne auf Naxos, they pitted high art against low art, music against drama in a fascinating comic situation. By the time Strauss came to write his last opera some 30 years later, he took the basic idea much further and based the whole work on the jostling for attention between words and music.
The result is something like Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues set to music, a discussion on the nature of theatre and how it combines with music to form the most expressive of dramatic arts, the opera. It becomes quite Pirandellian when the Count suggests they write an opera about themselves and what they’ve been debating that day. It’s maybe not to everyone’s taste but highly stimulating if you have an interest in musical and theatrical form.
As director, Guildhall’s Resident Producer Martin Lloyd-Evans has taken a pragmatic approach and set the opera in Strauss’ day, rather than the original 18th Century. Jamie Vartan’s set is functional, not quite the French Chateau that was intended, but it serves the purpose well enough.
There’s something of a young Rita Hunter about Katherine Broderick as the Countess, with a clarity and power that will carry her far (they’ve already won her both the Guildhall Gold Medal and the Kathleen Ferrier Award). If she doesn’t quite have the acting confidence yet to fully command the stage, that will come with time. Chloé de Backer, as the actress Clairon, more naturally takes centre stage in the brief moments allotted to her.
Philip Gerrard makes a strong character of La Roche, the Theatre Director, who has the longest monologue of the evening, defending his craft as theatre practitioner. There is good support from Philip Spendley and Bragi Bergthórsson as the warring champions of words and music, Olivier and Flamand, while Nicholas Merryweather as the Count has some fine moments of comic timing. The Italian singers, Tyler Clarke and Milda Smalakyte, stuffing their faces with food and drink the moment they have finished performing, add colour.
The ensemble sails through the notoriously difficult Laughter and Quarrel Octets and Clive Timms steers the whole cast and orchestra through the demanding material with great accomplishment. This seldom-performed opera is a delight and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening that moves both the heart and the mind. Whoever chose this unlikely piece as a final student production is to be commended; it’s a gamble that has come off magnificently well.
Performances are alternated, with Gareth Huw Jones (Flamand), Jean-Philippe Elleouet (Olivier), Sophie Angebault (The Countess), Lukas Kargl (The Count) and Tania Mandzy (Clairon) as the second cast.